Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Art of the Colt Navy Revolver

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

While researching arms and armament of the United States Navy we happened across a peculiar statement, “The Navy model Colt revolver was made for the Navy, and thus so named.” Being the ever-skeptical students of history that we are, we felt this needed some examination. Indeed, the Model 1851 Colt revolver bears an elaborate engraving on the cylinder of a naval engagement. With limited exception, by the time of the American Civil War, all Colt’s patent revolvers bore some type of cylinder engraving. It would be reasonable to assume that the naval scene engraved upon the “Navy” model was done in homage to the U.S. Navy and the pistols produced for their use. However this is not the case!
Early advertisement for Colt’s revolving pistols. The cylinder scenes were used to discourage counterfeit production--A real fear in the 1800s. The center scene is for the “Navy” sized pistols. (Image courtesy True West Magazine)
Upon closer inspection one will notice that in addition to the W.L. Ormsby naval engraving it bears the inscription, “Engaged 16th May, 1843.” This struck us as a bit unusual as we could not remember anything of significance happening in the US Navy on this date. A bit of leg work at the library was in order, but we have now uncovered the inspiration for the battle scene. The Battle of Campeche was fought on this date between the Mexican Navy and the Texas Navy.

The Colt Navy cylinder engraving would have looked like this, had the cylinder been flattened out.
The Battle of Campeche accomplished very little. It was fought between the formidable Mexican Navy who sailed with two, state of the art, ironclad steamers and various other fighting ships and the fledgling Texas Navy and their Yucatan supporters using all wooden ships of lesser tonnage. Both sides suffered a number of casualties, but no ships were lost and nothing was gained. It is of note though that this battle remains perhaps the only one fought between ironclads and wooden ships that did not end poorly for the former. Why would this battle have meant so much to Sam Colt to inspire him to have it engraved on so many of his pistols? It turns out Colt had sold many of his early model revolvers to the Texas Republic and they were proudly carried into battle by both land and naval forces. The purchase kept Colt’s company financially afloat during its early days. Edwin Moore, commander of the Texas Navy, wrote Sam Colt to personally express his appreciation:
Commodore Edwin Moore in a Texas Navy uniform.
The confidence that your arms gave the officers and men under my command when off Campeche in 1843 and opposed to a vastly superior force is almost incredible. I would not sail if I could possibly avoid it without your repeating arms and I would have no other.
 – from a letter by Commodore Edwin Moore to Sam Colt
It would appear that the purchase of Colt’s revolvers at such a critical time, and the very much-appreciated compliment about its performance in battle, might have inspired Colt to commission the engraving with this nautical battle scene on many of his revolvers. However this is only speculation as we could find no evidence from the company as such. Now with the Navy scene firmly engraved on most of Colt’s revolvers it seems it would be safe to say the “Navy” moniker has evolved from this distinction. It may be of note that the original designation for these pistols was that of the “Ranger” model. Interestingly enough, the naval engraving also carried over to the larger “Army” pistols produced a few years later. Soldiers and sailors on both sides of the Civil War would go bravely into battle with the confidence that their Colt revolver would see them through, perhaps inspired by the Texas Navy at Campeche.

The model 1851 Colt Navy shown in the picture has had the naval scene on the cylinder mostly worn away over time. The weapon was commonly used by both land and naval forces on both sides during the American Civil War and saw extensive use overseas as well.

For further reading on the Sam Colt and Colt revolvers please see The Story of Colt’s Revolver; The Biography of Col. Sam Colt, by William B. Edwards. 


Unknown said...

There was a lot of politics involved that caused the Texas Navy Colts to end up in the hands of the Texas Rangers. A great read on the Texas Navy is

michael hutson said...

the Texas Paterson was also used by the Rangers early on;this also helped Colt remain solvent

Whoafishing said...

Great Article, very informative. WELL DONE!